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The following is part 5 of an 8 part series covering the basics of having an agile mind-set. Ultimately, working on these eight principles will better help you implement whatever agile framework you chose in your work. But, mastering these 8 principles will better aid you in your life as an agilist. You can start with part one here. Without adaptability, you will encounter greater frustration and stress. Adaptability can make a world of difference in your work and in your life.

Where adaptability matters

There is a small creek that runs through the back portion of a wooded area where I live. On most days, this creek is dried up, with a little amount of water running through it. On these days, you can see large stones, fallen tree limbs, pockets of large pebbles and silt mixed in with slick areas of mud. Over the past few months, we’ve had a lot of rain (sorry California). One of the cool things to see, on these particular wet days, is how the water ebbs and flows through the various obstacles that were clearly seen on drier days. When the creek is full, you can see the water winding around the rocks and pebbles leaving “sandbars” in the middle of the flowing water. You can see the soft spots eroding away from the water as it carves its most efficient path downwards to the ponds. The water’s path is always moving, changing when needed, hitting rocks and moving past them. Water is nature’s ultimate lesson in adaptability. It changes course, but it never changes its fundamental structure. Water is just fused hydrogen and oxygen molecules working with gravity.

Drawing upon this metaphor, the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said,

Water is fluid, soft and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.

From water to work

Okay, so metaphors aside, lets look at work. In today’s economy, the constant that you can take to the bank is that things change. People change, teams change, initiatives change, environments change, requirements change. Sears, who has been in business for over a century, filed bankruptcy and is looking at a possible liquidation. J.C. Penny, another centenarian business, experienced a stock drop below one dollar. Malls are collapsing and empty. Business models that haven’t changed in decades are suddenly realizing that the world changed without them.

The reasons why people buy cars have evolved over the years. Regulations and laws constantly change even in industries that were once considered stable. Technology is accelerating and advancing change faster than we can accommodate at times.

Adaptability as a competitive advantage

With all this change, Darwin’s theory of evolution rings true to us, as humans working in an ever-changing world.

It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.

In our case, businesses that can adapt will be the ones that will survive. As a primer for this theory, here are 5 companies that have been the most adaptable over time. Reading through this article, you can find that companies have a starting point, but have adapted to changing conditions to stay relevant. Being adaptable, as a competitive advantage, is not new or edgy; it has been a constant point of discussion by various firms like Harvard Business Review, Business Insider, Forbes, etc.

So, if things are continually changing, it would seem to me that the people most in positions to handle the stress and challenges that come with constant change are the ones that have the ability to adapt, and adapt quickly. In short, water wins. To quote Bruce Lee, “Be water, my friend.”

The benefits of adaptability

Individual Benefits

There are different benefits of adaptability on different levels. At the individual level, adaptability brings with it new ability, knowledge, and skills. The person that is adaptable is constantly learning and growing. Being adaptable isn’t comfortable, but you move forward and are able to take on new opportunities that may come your way. Also, on and individual level, adaptability lowers stress levels when change inevitably comes. Change naturally brings with it stress. But, if you are adaptable, then you roll with the changes and better cope with the stress than someone that is not adaptable.

Team benefits

Adaptable teams bring business value. If the survival of a business is dependent on change, then the team’s ability to change will naturally enhance a company’s value. Companies survive on bringing value to its customers. Therefore, the ability to extract what customers value, and deliver on that desire is what adaptability is all about. Inevitably what the customer values in a company is subject to change. If you can’t pivot on that value change, you are not adaptable, and certainly not agile.

Are you adaptable?

So, by now the need for adaptability on any level should be clear. The question now becomes, are you adaptable? Just like any other trait, this is a hard question to answer. Unfortunately, none of us have an adaptability scale imprinted on our forearm that we can look at on a daily basis. Additionally, finding the perfectly adaptable person is also impossible. All of us are on a scale of adaptability at different points. Figuring out where you are in terms of adaptability is a personal thing that can’t really be answered by anyone else. However, here is a list of some things that can help you decide where you are on this principle from a world-renowned adaptability coach (yes there is such a thing apparently). You can read the full article here for a full list of things to consider.

Adaptability assessment (abbreviated)

  1. Do you experiment with new things? Experimentation is a companion of adaptability so long as you are experimenting with the purpose of changing or learning something from the experiment.
  2. Are you resourceful? I think of this as the MacGyver trait, but instead of getting out of difficult situations with duct tape and bubble gum, you create value by utilizing ideas and tools in new ways.
  3. Do you think ahead? This trait isn’t necessarily about predicting the future, but finding context by looking ahead. For example, autonomous driving has been in testing for years now. If you are an adaptable truck driver, can you see this trend and correlate it to what you are currently doing as a truck driver? What would you do in response to the possibility of being replaced by a computer?  If you are looking ahead, you are already taking steps to deal with this dramatic shift in your industry.
  4. How often do you whine? Whining is a reflection of resistance to change. Adaptable people vent, and move on and adapt to the new change. They act rather than protest.
  5. Are you proactive? Pro-activity ties into number three, thinking ahead. If you are proactive you act rather than are acted upon by outside forces.
  6. Are you curious? If you are curious, you learn new things, look at new ideas, find new ways to do things. The importance here, like experimentation, is you are curious with an eye to changing something about you or your surroundings.
  7. Do you stay current? I’ve explained that things are constantly changing. If you are not staying current, you are hampering your ability to change and adapt.

One Final Point

Being adaptable doesn’t mean that you change for the sake of changing. The one thing that you can’t bend or change quickly is your founding principles. You need to figure out what those principles are, and then make sure your changes are aligned with those principles. There will be times where your principles need to change. That is okay so long as you have them predefined. If you don’t have that defined, do that first then work on being adaptable.

Hopefully this helps in some way.

Thanks for reading.

Being > Doing

David Bjarnson

David Bjarnson

David is an agile practitioner for 6 years in various capacities working specifically on software development for a number of different companies. David has his CSM, CSPO, CSP-PO, CSP-SM, and PMI-ACP certifications.

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